Whoa there buddy
The changing SEO landscape was one of the most pervasive and controversial topics in Internet marketing last year. While some high-profile marketers maintained that good, legitimate, white-hat SEO has always been clear-cut, and claims to the contrary are just snake oil peddling, we believe that SEO is full of gray zones and judgment calls.
Although we’re primarily a PPC company, we’ve always believed in the power of SEO as a marketing channel, and in fact our business is highly dependent on organic search traffic, so we take this stuff seriously. Due to Google’s evolving algorithm and continuing battle against search spam, we’ve reconsidered some of the tactics that have seemingly worked for us in the past, for two reasons:
- Recent evidence suggests these tactics might no longer be effective in increasing rankings/traffic (and therefore not a good use of our time)
- Recent evidence suggests these tactics might be actively targeted and penalized by Google (meaning they could hurt our site rather than simply having no effect)
Read on to learn the SEO strategies that we’re easing up on and why.
Over-Optimized Anchor Text
Anchor text used to be considered a strong and valid signal about the content of a link destination. Optimizing your anchor text to tell Google where a link was pointing was considered SEO best practice whether you were linking internally or externally. For example, if you were linking to a page about hedge trimmers, you should use the words “hedge trimmers” as the anchor text for the hyperlink, rather than generic language like “click here.” This told Google – and your readers, as a bonus! – that the link would take them to a page about hedge trimmers.
The problem? Overzealous SEOs have taken advantage of this (perfectly valid, user-friendly) SEO tactic, and now Google appears to have earmarked it as a sign of over-optimization or manipulation. For example, if a certain page has 500 links to it with the exact same anchor text (like “mesothelioma lawyer”) that’s a sign that the links may be paid for or otherwise unnatural. But what is the tip-off point where “good SEO” turns into “too much” or “bad SEO”? Nobody knows.
Back in November of 2012, Rand Fishkin predicted that “anchor text may be a fading factor (still powerful, just on the downswing) while co-occurrence … is becoming stronger.” This is how he explains co-occurrence (emphases mine):
Google is getting a lot smarter about this. A ton of articles that mention backlink analysis, how to look at backlinks, talk about Open Site Explorer. Some of them link to it. Some of them don't. But because Open Site Explorer is very commonly cited in addition to the keyword phrase "backlink analysis," you're seeing OSE do really well for that query term.
This, in my opinion, is one of the kind of future looking elements of how we're going to do SEO, brand association, having people write about us and do PR about our brands, associating those terms together so that very frequently when you see an authoritative, high quality source mention a keyword phrase, talk about a keyword phrase, they're mentioning your brand. They're linking to your site. They don't even necessarily have to link to exactly your page. This type of SEO is something that's not very practiced today, but it certainly should be on a lot of people's minds for the future.
You can watch the whole video here:
Anchor Text for Infographic links
In the past, infographics have been one of our strongest link building strategies. Like anyone else who does infographics, we have always used an embedding widget so that people can easily repost the infographics on their own site, and the widget automatically includes a link back to our site so that:
- We get the credit for the content, and
- We get an inbound link, with optimized anchor text
But if we get 500 links in a short amount of time with the exact same anchor text, is that actually optimal, or is that sending a manipulation signal to Google?
One way to reduce the number of links with the exact same anchor text is to code the widget to automatically vary the anchor text. Last week Mike King wrote about the tactic. But is randomizing your anchor text too shady? Justin Briggs argued with King on Twitter that this practice wouldn’t serve users; “The natural state of an embed link is a pattern. Destroying that pattern is the manipulation,” he said. King argued back that this practice isn’t any more manipulative “than link building itself.”
Matt Cutts and friends might say that active link building is, in fact, a manipulation – links should be earned, not asked for. But can businesses hope to succeed without doing any link building? Is it really enough just to “create great content” without finding smart ways to promote it and spread it around as well? Sometimes a link is earned but you still have to ask for it – even if you’re the perfect candidate for a job, you can’t get hired until you apply. Websites, especially smaller, younger sites, may need to work harder at self-promotion in order to increase their visibility. Once you're established and that machine is in place, you're more likely to get away with simply creating great content and letting it promote itself.
Personally, I doubt that it’s possible to market a business in 2013 without ever crossing the line into something that could be considered “manipulation.” Nonetheless, we’re taking a closer look at the anchor text on our backlinks and looking for patterns that could be problematic. (You can check out your own backlinks using Open Site Explorer.) But note that over-optimized anchor text isn’t a problem you can solve programmatically. If all your links were generated by randomizing widgets, you’d end up with a link profile that looked less fake, but still fake. (Instead of 500 links with the exact same anchor text, you’d have 100 links with one set of anchor text, 100 with another set, and so on, basically over-optimization distributed evenly over a larger number of variations.) Co-occurrence as Rand describes it above is something that should happen naturally if your content and PR strategies are in place.
New strategy: Don’t be a control freak about anchor text for all links, internal or external, to a page. A natural link profile would have some “optimized” anchor text and plenty of random variation. Welcome the random.
Guest posts are another tactic that we see as offering diminishing returns. Here are some of the problems with this tactic:
- Most guest posting isn’t scalable. In order to keep your referral traffic up, you have to keep writing more posts. It doesn’t scale.
- It dilutes your brand value. AJ Kohn has talked about this in the past; when you create great content and let someone else have it, it builds their brand, not yours.
- You have less control over the content and its response. It’s harder to keep up with a conversation that isn’t happening on your own site. Plus, the site/blog could die and then your content disappears.
- Links from guest posting may raise a red flag at Google. Matt Cutts and the rest of the spam team at Google recognize that guest posting is a favorite tactic of SEOs, and that means – like any SEO tactic! – it can be overused and misused. Guest post links, similar to those obtained through infographics, may eventually be devalued.
We have gotten real value from guest posting in the past. Not only did it help us form important relationships with other marketers in the search space, but it helped build out our link profile in the early years, raising awareness for our business and brand. However, these days we spend less of our time trying to write and place guest posts. Rather than a couple of links, we look for ways to drive significant referral traffic, which almost always leads to links on the side. Here are a couple of the ways we’ve accomplished that:
- If you’re going to guest-blog, aim high – Really high. We’ve gotten an amazing response from content that we’ve placed at SEOmoz, for a few reasons: 1) SEOmoz has very high standards for guests posts, so you can’t get away with phoning it in. 2) SEOmoz has a great community of very smart, engaged readers. If you write good stuff, it actually gets read! 3) SEOmoz’s huge reach leads to a trickle-down effect – one guest post can lead to many additional links. Basically, I want our blog to be this awesome and powerful! But until it is, we want to engage with that audience as much as we can.
- Citations, not guest posts – In the past year especially, Larry Kim’s thought leadership on topics like the shifting balance between SEO and PPC and the industries that get the most leverage from PPC has allowed us to become an expert source on Internet marketing, so we can get mentions and links on high-profile sites like Inc. and CNN without having to pitch and write guest posts. Obviously, this is an enviable position and not one you can get into over night.
New strategy: Spend more time creating “awesome” content that lives on our own site. Go for guest posts when the site is significantly more powerful than our own – and make it count. Become a go-to source for the media on search marketing.
Press releases are one of the easiest ways to get backlinks with the anchor text of your choosing. Right? Wrong, it would appear. Matt Cutts was recently quoted as saying that links in press releases won’t help your rankings. They’re essentially no-follow links.
However, if your press release gets picked up by a legitimate news source, any links that source retains do have value. So press releases can still be great for exposure, but you can’t look at them as a link building strategy alone.
New strategy: Don’t bother with press releases unless the content really is news-worthy, then proceed as usual.
What About You?
Are there SEO tactics that you’ve eased up on or abandoned in response to recent changes in the search landscape?